Why are children in care being sent miles from home?

A two-storey red-brick building which has had its windows covered up. Some graffiti tags have been sprayed on the ground floor. In front, a fence is covered with placards advertising businesses around the corner, including Jewson's builders' merchants and the H-Mart Korean food shop, and various car service yards.
Former Roselands Clinic, New Malden

In today’s Observer, there is an investigation into children in care in England being sent sometimes hundreds of miles from home for lack of care placements in their home areas; they note that children from London have been placed as far away as Perth, Glasgow, Knowsley (a deprived borough on the edge of Liverpool), Leeds and Carlisle; dozens are more than 250 miles from home and about 600 are more than 50 miles from their home neighbourhoods. As the report notes, sometimes children have to be moved out of their home areas for their own safety but relocating them in other circumstances separated them from their schools, friends, clubs and other support networks and would expose some to the risk of exploitation. In an accompanying piece, two young women who had been victims of this are interviewed; one was moved a 45 minute journey from home and was still able to go to her school; the other was moved to a ‘care’ home in rural Cambridgeshire that was cut off from everything and where she witnessed physical abuse.

It’s surprising that this second interviewee, Kerrie Portman of Just For Kids Law (who previously wrote this article for the Guardian about her ‘care’ experience), makes the only mention of the major reason for this trend: the inflated property costs in London, which has resulted in care home providers (nowadays mostly private) concentrating their businesses in places where land and housing is cheap, including the aforementioned Knowsley. Some of the problems affecting care homes seem to be the same ones affecting psychiatric units in remote places: the difficulty of recruiting and retaining good quality staff, which would be easier if the homes and hospitals were in places where people live rather than in the countryside. In the past, long-stay hospitals were built in out-of-town locations precisely because it was thought that removing people from the polluted city to a place where the air was clean and the scenery green was beneficial, but those places were not completely isolated and often had regular buses to the nearest town. The problem is not entirely new; education for children with disabilities or special needs was contracted out to the private sector and children required to travel to boarding schools for decades, this only abating in the 1980s and schools gradually closed as the model went out of fashion, for good reason. Local authority children’s homes were not paradise; there was widespread abuse, but they were at least usually local.

The inflation of property prices in London make it unviable for private companies to build and run children’s homes here. However, if local authorities and the NHS did not keep selling off perfectly good buildings, some of them could be refurbished and redecorated and used for this purpose. I have seen former NHS buildings lying empty for years, or sold and turned into private flats while children need a home here. Here in New Malden, for example, the old Roselands clinic (above right), where outpatient mental health services were based, was closed some years ago and has been turned into apartments; admittedly, the planning application was for all seven apartments to be affordable and offered to people on the housing waiting list and the money raised was to be used for a “major new hospital scheme”. The building was described in the local media at the time as derelict; I used the services there in 2012 and it certainly was not derelict then. Maybe this was not the right building to repurpose for a children’s home, but we are seeing too many public buildings fall into private hands while the NHS and local authorities rely on the private sector to provide the services they used to provide, often at greater cost and to no better standards, and sometimes much worse, than they used to provide.

The government has, of course, starved local authorities of funding for decades, hence the widespread closures of libraries, swimming pools and youth clubs, the increases in council tax, the spate of local authorities going bankrupt or getting into debt to each other. A lot of them would not be able to buy up buildings or land to use as children’s homes or other public necessities without a lot of new money, but they would not have had to if they had not been selling off assets for decades.

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